Poster art is worth a thousand words

April 12, 1992|By Chuck Myers | Chuck Myers,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Picture this: Bill Clinton serenading arch rival Jerry Brown on a piano to tunes like "Little White Lies."

Sounds weird? Well, that's the way the Progressive Party depicted Harry Truman and his rival, Thomas Dewey, in a 1948 political poster drawn by artist Ben Shahn.

The poster, along with 24 others, is the focus of a colorful review of poster art portraiture at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Ranging from a 6-by-6-foot poster of James Cagney in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" down to a tabloid-size calendar, the exhibit offers a look at the posters that helped craft the public images of many of America's favorite heroes, villains, film stars and idols.

Before 1870, posters were used primarily as public notices for decrees. The oldest poster in the exhibit is an 1865 "WANTED" poster, which offers a reward for the apprehension of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and two accomplices. The three are pictured atop the poster, typical of the Victorian-age pre-color poster illustration, with a large headline that reads simply, "The Murderer."

The early use of imagery in posters "was mainly tied into the circus and the traveling show," said Wendy Reeves, the show's curator and organizer. "Those were the first steps away from the Victorian advertising, which the 'wanted' poster represented, to real, modern poster art as we think of it."

The exhibit includes two 19th century posters promoting two of the most famous shows ever to hit the road: Barnum & Bailey and Buffalo Bill with his stampeding brand of Wild West entertainment.

Dancers enjoyed top billing among poster artists, as is seen in an 1893 work by French artist Jules Cheret of American dancer Loie Fuller's show at the Folies Bergere. Cheret is considered the father of the modern poster art that most people associate with art nouveau.

Almost from the start, Hollywood realized that posters could attract moviegoers to the theater with irresistible, bigger-than-life imagery of film stars.

A French poster of actress Alla Nazimova in "Madonna of the Streets" exhibits the exotic appeal of the elegant Russian beauty, while everyone's favorite Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin, serves as the centerpiece for a poster of a burlesque film version of "Carmen."

A 1953 poster for the movie "Trinidad" features the film's stars, the lusty Rita Hayworth and angry Glenn Ford.

Patriotism and propaganda are one and the same in a 1918 work for a film produced by the U.S. government. A glowing rendition of Gen. John Pershing has him mounted upon his horse and leading a column of his troops during World War I, all backed by a shadowy legion of crusading knights.

Posters also advertised a wealth of controversial entertainment.

In the display is a poster touting "Ask Alexander," a latter-day traveling "Dear Abby" named Claude Alexander Conlin, who offered advice about love, money and lost friends. His head is seen cleverly wrapped in a turban that flows down to form a large question mark.

Unfortunately, the profits Conlin made while doling out advice and selling crystal balls eventually led him right into the jaws of the Internal Revenue Service, which sued him for $130,000 in back taxes.

The posters are drawn from the Portrait Gallery's permanent collection, and will be on display until Aug. 16.

The National Portrait Gallery is located at Eighth and F streets Northwest. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission is free.

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